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Essential workers fear not just for their own health, but for their families

In recent weeks, essential workers have been pushed down the priority list for COVID-19 vaccinations in states including California and Massachusetts, a decision that is likely to cost lives among the people we rely on to keep us fed and keep the economy going. A recent study by researchers at the University of California-San Francisco shows a big spike in excess death among these workers in 2020.

There was a 22% increase in deaths over all adults aged 18 to 65 in California last year, the researchers found. But among food and agricultural workers, the increase was 39%. For Latino adults overall, the increase in deaths was 36%. For Latino food and agriculture workers, it was 59%. For Black working-age adults, the increase was 28%, and for Black retail workers, it was 36%. Asian Americans also saw a big jump in one profession, from 18% excess mortality for everyone working age to 40% for healthcare workers.

White Californians got off easy—6% excess mortality for everyone age 18 to 65 and 16% for food and agriculture workers. That’s a ridiculously large difference.

The danger for essential workers doesn’t stop with their own lives. Two essential workers interviewed by The Wall Street Journal recount infecting members of their families—one woman’s husband died after an outbreak in the grocery store where she works. Every day, 68-year-old Joyce Babineau lights a candle and talks to her husband’s ashes. “I talk to him and tell him I’m sorry,” she told the WSJ. “Because I brought it home.”

Now Babineau isn’t sure she can afford to retire this year, as she and her husband had planned, and she’s still showing up for her shifts at Stop & Shop. “As time goes on, everybody forgets that you’re still on the front line.” Safety measures at many workplaces have never been adequate—many have been almost entirely hygiene theater—and many companies eliminated their already inadequate hazard pay a few months into the pandemic, even as workers continued to get sick and die.

It’s hard to wrap our minds around the more than 440,000 COVID-19 deaths the United States has suffered. For workers who can’t stay home and are at the mercy of their employers’ highly variable commitments to health and safety measures, every day on the job brings the risk that they or a member of their family will be added to that toll. And we haven’t reckoned with that, either—congressional Republicans and some Democrats are still dragging their feet over the idea of taking the next four years to raise the minimum wage to $15. Paid leave is still not a reality in most of the United States, except in limited ways for limited time during the pandemic. The pandemic came, and the United States answered, in policy and politics, that essential workers are dispensable human beings. 

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on February 2, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a contributing editor since December 2006. Clawson has been full-time staff since 2011, and is currently assistant managing editor at the Daily Kos.

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